Making decisions

Making decisions is something I’ve done a little bit of thinking about, although I still don’t have it figured out.

So I was interested to see this talk by a philosopher, Ruth Chang, come up – How to make hard choices. It’s a good talk, and worth watching.

I think she articulates the problem well; and she reaches a conclusion that I agree with. But something about her logic feels a little off to me. I’m hoping to read her article (I think it’s Are hard choices cases of incomparability?, which you can find on her webpage), and I may come back to this then.

But for now I’ll just reflect on the talk. I think her definition of the problem is great. When we’re confronted by a ‘hard choice’, it’s often because there is no clear metric for which option is better. It’s a mistake to think of comparing two potential jobs as something that can be put next to each other on a scale from one to ten, particularly if they’re strikingly different (she uses the example of an artist and investment banker).

I also agree with her that hard choices like that are opportunities to define our values. I read somewhere in my undergrad studies (apologies for not digging the reference up) that one theory of how we think about ourselves is through interpreting our actions; that is, we build a self-model based on perceptions of our own actions. So in that sense, it’s very concretely a case of building ourselves. More broadly, a ‘hard choice’ is a chance to translate into action a set of ideas we may hold; about what we value, or don’t value.

But I disagree with her on the intermediate step of her speech. After saying that a simple one-dimensional perspective isn’t right, she suggests that instead of the three possibilities when comparing two quantities (greater than, less than, or equal), there should be a fourth – ‘on par’, which might mean … I forget her words, but something like ‘roughly equivalent’.

Perhaps I’m approaching this too simplistically, but that just sounds like a fuzzy way of saying ‘the difference between the value of these two options is small’, which puts us right back on a simple one-dimensional number line. The issue is that big choices aren’t choices between two things – even when we have two options, we’re really choosing between packages of multiple types of things. One option might involve status, money, and stability; another might involve freedom and some form of artistic fulfilment.

There are multiple things involved, and multiple types of things; they’re different scales. In choosing between donuts and cereal, we’re valuing both healthy eating, and tastiness, which are two separate attributes.

The question then becomes, how much do you value each of the things in different bundles? And I’m not suggesting that in the real world people engage in some kind of utilitarian calculus, where they weight each attribute, and calculate a total utility for each option. (Not because that isn’t theoretically possible, but because humans use heuristics even for major decisions, and there’s significant uncertainty around most hard choices). But most of our hard choices are hard because they’re choices between multiple different types of things. So the hard part of that process, and the one (where I agree with Ruth Chang) where we get to define ourselves, is on the value we place on different attributes. How much do you value security? Fulfilment? Adventure?

So it goes on.


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